I grew up in the Bronx in the 60’s and 70’s, when the Bronx was burning and neighborhoods were changing. I grew up around racism. It was just there. It was in the conversations, in the slurs that were used, on the television, in the air that we breathed, in the water we drank…a part of society in which I lived, in which we all lived. As a little girl, I knew something was off and made a conscious decision to not follow in that path. I was not going to be a racist. I was careful to not generalize about any group of people. What I did not realize is that when racism is in the air you breathe, in the society you live in, in the conversations of your neighbors, it becomes a part of you and lives in you unconsciously, until you shine a light on it, until you wake up. I discovered this truth in 2017, when I was taking a course at the Nalanda Institute. One of the classes was on “Unconscious Bias”. The visiting professor for this class was an African-American Buddhist who shared with us her own unconscious bias towards black men. I was stunned. It never occurred to me that black people could have a bias towards other black people, but, society had also conditioned them. This professor guided us through an exercise that helped us examine our own unconscious biases. The tenet of the exercise is that you cannot heal what you are not aware of. We first have to acknowledge what is in us. Before any outer change can occur, we must go inward. This was one of the most powerful classes I had ever attended. We were given images of many different people. And then we were guided to examine what our response was to these people. As we looked at a person of color, an obese woman or an elderly man in a wheelchair, we asked ourselves what was happening within us? Are our muscles tense or relaxed? Has our breathing become shallow? What are we thinking? What are our preconceived notions? What are our knee-jerk reactions? We noticed what was happening in our bodies and in our minds. We breathed, we paused, and during that pause, we were able to shine the light on beliefs hidden in tiny crevices and choose differently. We discovered in this class, that many of us were conditioned to think the same way about various groups of people. If that is true, it is probably true for many police officers. Wouldn’t it be powerful if every police officer in this country were required to go through a program about unconscious biases and become more mindful as a result. What if they learned to pause, instead of react? How many people would be saved? What if all corporations and schools and towns and cities looked at the policies that drive them and examined it for racist ideas that laced through them? What if?
I was sickened at the last debate to hear that the federal racial sensitivity training was being eliminated. The justification for ending it was that it is anti-American. For any elimination of racism, we must take inventory, as individuals, as schools, as corporations, as towns and villages, and certainly as a country. We cannot get better if we do not see where our problem lies. This issue has deep roots and is present every where we look. We have much to learn. Avoidance is not a political strategy. Denial is not a political strategy. We need positive change. We could all learn about positive change from Twelve Step Programs. Step Four tells us to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. This step is crucial for any change to occur for the recovering person. Our country has hit rock bottom. America needs recovery. And it starts with each one of us. Where do I still have a blind spot where racism is concerned? Part of my own inventory was recognizing what I do not know. So, I have plunged into learning more this year, after being horrified about the killing of George Floyd. A book I highly recommend is “How to be an Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi. Mr. Kendi spoke about his own history of racist ideas, and his present anti-racist ideas. It is eye-opening and not an easy read, but it is important. America needs to take stock. It is not anti-American to look at our shortcomings. It is necessary. When I take my own inventory about ways I have been conditioned, I don’t hate myself for that conditioning. I have compassion, and I want to do better. And the good news is that I can do better. Similarly, I don’t hate our country for its conditioning, but I sure as shit (that’s my Bronx coming out) want our country to do better, to choose differently. Our power is in our choices. We have such an important choice next week! Don’t forfeit your power. VOTE!
I teach mindfulness and self-compassion and yes, this is a different blog post than most of my musings. Yet, this is all about mindfulness! When we engage in spiritual practices and we cultivate mindfulness and compassion, we come away with the knowing that we are all one, and when we KNOW that, activism follows. We will no longer walk over the homeless person and not want to help. We will not see George Floyd killed and not want to be part of the call for justice. It will no longer be happening to “them”. It is happening, and we are either part of the problem or part of the solution.
With love, Jeanette